Henry V, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jenna Ware. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"A little touch of Harry in the night."
One of the things I adore about this job and the accumulated years I've been at it is watching talent develop on our stages. Stephanie Tanaka at the Ghent Playhouse, for example has come a long way since she appeared in the chorus of Follies and as the bus passenger in The Trip to Bountiful. Similarly Ryan Winkles at Shakespeare and Company has advanced from the outrageous fops of a decade ago to the leading romantic figures and now to the very ample title role in the Bare Bard production of Henry V, playing the young king whose war with France matures him. Chatting with other audiences members I discovered that other people have a problem that also follows me around: trying to forget memorable earlier performances. We are haunted by the light comedy of Winkles work, the outrageous, gap-toothed characters he has portrayed. We have accepted him as a Roman lover, but can we accept him in this very serious part? That definitely IS the question.
It's not easy: that's the answer. In the first half of the play Winkles seems to be declaiming rather than acting his role. It is almost as though at any moment his eyes will flash, his smile will twinkle and the serious young man he is bringing to life will suddenly turn into a figure of fun, a ridiculous parody of a man. Though that never happens there is that awful feeling that it might.
In the second half of the play, however, that aspect leaves his performance and, disguised as a Welsh soldier, his Henry becomes a more serious and more realistic character and it is easy to believe that this is real. Winkles manages to bring his Henry V under a protective wing as he is shrouded in a cloak and hood, and the result of this transformation is the ultimate change in the audience. Our expectations of him alter permanently and he responds to that by delivering a heart-felt second act performance that is at turns moving and endearing. This Henry is one of Shakespeare's most curious creations. Having used him in two earlier plays he presents him now at the turning point in his life. Unable to bear insults from the French prince Henry declares war and goes out to defeat his former friends and take over the continental country. What follows is an adventure like no other.
Bare Bard productions at Shakespeare and Company are stripped down in every way. Twenty-seven different roles, plus ensemble and "greek chorus" are played by seven actors, three of them male and four female. The set is a bare stage with five chairs, a few crates and a board and cloths. Costumes are used to help delineate the characters for the audience: red and gold for the British, Blue and gray for the French. Women play boys, men and women; men - in this production - only play men. The company is a talented one and they pull off their various guises with masterful intent. Two members of the company are absolutely brilliant at it and the rest are nearly as good.
The two who stand out are Jonathan Croy and David Joseph. Joseph, whose several seasons of romantic leading men roles may be behind him for a while, plays two of the great parts in this play: Nym, one of Sir John Falstaff's henchmen and Louis, the Dauphin of France. Joseph's Dauphin is a French fop whose moués and his head-tosses clearly define him as French. He is careful about his doublet and his hose, definitive about his verbal thrusts, immaculate in his aristocratic attitude and overly precious in his distanced relationships with everyone around him including his own father, the King. Joseph makes Louis into the enemy just by inhabiting the stage in the role. Even if things had been going well between the two countries the presence of this particular Dauphin would have inspired the war and the battle of Agincourt.
Joseph also plays The Bishop of Canterbury, the Duke of York and Nym. Here is this very handsome actor, leading man material (if you haven't seen him in those roles just ask anyone who has and you'll learn what you've missed) playing an ugly, misshapen fool of a guy who cannot keep himself from saying and doing the wrong thing every time. He carries on like one of the Three Stooges of old, or a Chico Marx character in search of a piano. He distorts his face and body and becomes the funniest man in town. Even his voice is altered and this is done to perfection, both in tone and accent. Nym is David Joseph's triumph, a role that will be used as a standard to compare with in the future. Both roles, Nym and Louis, are what wonderful acting is about and to have them both in one performance is remarkable - transformative. There, I've said it again!
Jonathan Croy takes on the King of France with two canes and a wheel chair and the role of Pistol, another Falstaff crony now married to Mistress Quickly along with several other parts. His King of France is regal and steadfast and more imposing a king than Henry can be at this stage of his political rise. Croy bring a stern dignity to the role and behind it we always feel that power and control of it that urges the King forward into war. This is a perfect part for Croy whose very American voice and body fall distantly into the Gallic and come up from the waters of interpretation with a highly believable realization of the man. Likewise his loud and overbearing Pistol, so well-named a character, who is bombast and beauty and perversion and love all rolled up into a single human being. Croy not only has fun in the part, he communicates the fun and we can all feel it, we can be a part of the fun through his immersion into it.
Croy also plays the Duke of Westmoreland with a graceful air. This third role is a perfect counterpoint to Pistol. Like Croy and Joseph the other members of the ensemble play a wide variety of roles and they carry out this mission with grace. Highlights included Tom Jaeger as Captain Fluellen, a Welsh soldier and the Duke of Exeter, a man devoted to his nephew's interests. This actor has a wonderful voice and stage presence. Caroline Calkins as the Princess of France, and Henry's eventual love interest, was wonderful and as the Boy attached to the British army she also shined. Kelly Galvin was wonderful as the Lord High Constable of France and Lord Scroop of Britain along with several other roles. Jennie M. Jadow made Falstaff's friend Bardolph a particularly fascinating character and she also did yeoman work as Alice, the princess' lady in waiting. Sarah Jeanette Taylor was a bawdy Nell Quickly.
As the versatile, black-clad chorus who narrate and move the set pieces and move into and out of small roles, Croy, Taylor, Galvin, Jadow, and Jaeger add immeasurably to the pleasures of this production.
Bare Bard, but not truly bare, the costumes provided by Govane Lohbauer do what they're supposed to, defining the characters and providing an ensemble anonymity when needed. James W. Bilnoski's lighting provides atmosphere and illumination and often sets very pretty pictures on the stage. Andy Talen's sound design and music provides another mind-provoker. Patrick Brennan's clever and simple set design works well for this might play.
Jenna Ware's direction is crisp and efficient and thorough although allowing her leading man to almost bring down the weird reality of the play with his forced acting style in the first half feels like an avoidable mistake. She is to be congratulated for the outstanding choreography of this piece with its many many many costume/character shifts and her backstage crew should also be commended. One slip up (pun intended) and there goes the ball-game. And speaking of choreography, the battle of Agincourt as staged by Sarah Jeanette Taylor comes as close to a Martha Graham experience as you will find anywhere today.
The script has been pared down to just over two hours (with an additional fifteen minute intermission during which you can wonder aloud if Croy and Joseph will survive the constant changes of the second act) and a number of small roles have been eliminated. Shakespeare's only scene written in French is in this play and it is a treasure while his only love scene written for a couple who don't speak the same language is another delicious and unique feature of this play. Don't be discouraged by the first half's extremeties. The wonderful opening of Act Two with a toned down Henry is like the gateway to a new section of Disneyworld: you won't understand it when you enter it but the journey is so very worthwhile.
Ryan Winkles as King Henry V; photo: John Dolan
David Joseph as Nym; photo: John Dolan
Ryan Winkles, Caroline Calkins as Katherine, Jonathan Croy as the King of France; photo: John Dolan
Henry V plays in repertory on the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through August 23. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.